I devoured Naomi Hirahara’s new historical mystery, Clark and Division. It’s set in 1944 Chicago and is about a young Japanese-American woman trying to figure out what happened to her older sister.
Twenty-year-old Aki Ito is a Nisei, a second generation Japanese-American who grew up in Tropico, California. Her mom and dad are Issei, first generation Japanese who came to the U.S. in search of better lives. They’ve created a stable middle-class home for their daughters who are no strangers to racism at school or in their social circles.
Then comes the attack on Pearl Harbor. The aftermath was an excruciating uprooting for people like the Ito family. They worked hard to achieve a good life, only to have it ripped away by their government.
U.S. Government concentration camps
During World War II approximately 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry were incarcerated by the U.S. Government. They were placed in ten concentration camps throughout the west and midwest. A small number were released during the war and relocated to cities away from the Pacific coast such as Chicago.
Naomi Hirahara’s new historical mystery, Clark and Division, is set in this time period and shows the historical reality of what Japanese-Americans experienced.
Aki’s older sister Rose is the first family member to be “resettled” in Chicago. Months later, Aki and her parents arrive only to find that Rose is dead. Officials conclude that Rose committed suicide, but Aki thinks her beloved sister would never do such a thing.
As mom and dad set out to find jobs and struggle to build a new life in a strange city, Aki sets out to find out what really happened to her sister.
Chicago isn’t exactly a character in this novel, but it is more than a passive backdrop. This is a story set in a particular place and time, and while the story and mystery are painful reminders of a past that is still very present, I enjoyed coming upon known streets and places (particularly one of my favorite institutions, the Newberry Library).
I first learned about this atrocity against fellow Americans in the late 1980s when a guest speaker gave a lecture at my college. Until reading this novel, I didn’t know that some victims of this racist policy had been relocated to Chicago.
Clark and Division is the best sort of historical mystery, one that teaches and makes you think as it entertains. The mystery is unique and solidly plotted with characters that I could see walking around in their city setting. I also appreciated the presence of Polish and Black Chicagoans.
Nonfiction resources: The fictional Ito family were incarcerated in the very real Manzanar concentration camp. At the back of the novel, Hirahara includes a list of books and resources for those who’d like to learn more. One of these is the excellent Densho Archives.
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Thank you to editor Juliet Grames for sending the Book Cougars an advance reader copy.